- Get Involved
Prepared by Sabina Wiedenhoeft, under the direction of Cynthia R. Field, Ph.D., for the Smithsonian's Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation.
April 6, 1998
The investigation of the Holt House land and its owners presents a story, which in many ways correlates the history of the people and their occupations in Washington, DC. The early land speculation, which was a part of establishing a new capital, is reflected in the early ownership by persons dealing in large lots of land. The property's former flour and plaster mills tell the story of the burgeoning mill industry, reflecting the industrial revolution in its early phase of treating agricultural products as a business. The house itself retains its mysteries still, but its owners and occupants give us insights into a range of interesting people who made contributions to the life of the community who might otherwise be forgotten. Finally, the adjacent property, a small portion of which was included in the parcel assembled for the National Zoological Park, is the abandoned site of the Union Benevolent Association Cemetery, a site that addresses the period of African-American history directly after slavery and into the 20th century. Another small, adjacent lot served as the earliest Quaker Cemetery in the greater Washington area, helping early settlers form a Quaker community in a then isolated area. All of these important history lessons are found at Holt House and its associated land, revealing a diverse history which is discussed in further detail in the following text.
During the eighteenth century the Beall family received several large land grants throughout the state of Maryland, including 863 1/2 acres in Montgomery County, property which later became a significant portion of the District of Columbia, and, part of which, became the land on which the Columbia Mills and Holt House were later built. ¹
When the Senate approved a bill in 1790 to locate the permanent seat of the government along the Potomac River, George Washington appointed a select group of men to act as land speculators to help amass public land reservations for the new federal city. ²
Benjamin Stoddert, one of the appointed land speculators, purchased the 863 1/2 acres from the Beall family in January 1793 along with many other parcels. ³
Stoddert served many public interests during his life as Captain in the Revolutionary Army, Secretary of the Board of War (1779-1781), merchant owner in Georgetown, co-founder and President of the Bank of Columbia (1794), and first Secretary of the Navy in 1798. ⁴
Despite his prominent position, however, Stoddert's land speculation left him land rich and cash poor. Perhaps to help increase his profit base, he constructed a flourmill along Rock Creek on the parcel of land which later became known as "Pretty Prospect". ⁵
In December 1800, Stoddert sold off parcels of the 863 1/2 acres to different buyers. 42.5 acres known as "Pretty Prospect", including the flourmill, were sold to Walter Mackall, a wealthy landholder from eastern Maryland. ⁶
Mackall turned the property around fairly quickly, selling the same 42.5 acres to Jonathan Shoemaker, a Pennsylvania Quaker miller, within three years.
Jonathan Shoemaker, a member of a prominent Quaker family from Philadelphia, undoubtedly learned the milling trade in his youth; his grandmother had built, in partnership with other relatives, a corn-grist mill near Philadelphia which remained in the family for one century. ⁷
Shoemaker purchased "Pretty Prospect" in January 1804 with the existent "mills, mill seats, way waters, buildings, and improvements". ⁸
He arrived with his family of five sons and one daughter to operate the mills.
Jonathan Shoemaker secured a mortgage on the property, which he maintained during his ownership. ⁹
Perhaps because the Columbia Mills failed to meet his expectations, he entered an agreement with Thomas Jefferson in 1806, only two years after his "Pretty Prospect" purchase, to operate Shadwell Mills in Virginia. Initially, Shoemaker remained at Columbia Mills, sending his oldest son, George, to oversee the operation while Jefferson corresponded with the elder Shoemaker via mail regarding business matters. ¹⁰
Jefferson was concerned over the poor quality of flour produced by George Shoemaker and his mismanagement of the mills. ¹¹
By 1809, Jefferson implored Jonathan Shoemaker to waste no further time in coming to Shadwell Mills to avoid imminent bankruptcy. Jefferson placed his confidence in the elder Shoemaker; Shoemaker complied by selling "Pretty Prospect" and moving to Virginia. ¹²
The Shoemakers were among the earliest Quaker settlers in the young city of Washington. Initially they had to travel great distances to attend Quaker meetings at Sandy Spring and Indian Spring until 1806 when the first Quaker meeting was held in Washington. In 1807, Hannah Lukens Shoemaker, Jonathan's wife, died. She was buried on a small parcel of "Pretty Prospect" land donated by her husband to the Quaker community to create the first Quaker cemetery in Washington. ¹³
Roger Johnson, the next owner of "Pretty Prospect", was the youngest brother of Maryland's first Governor, Thomas Johnson. A resident of Urbana, MD, he was both an owner of numerous estates and an entrepreneur. He and his three older brothers invested in several business ventures together, including the Bloomesbury Forge near Frederick, MD. Roger Johnson may have purchased "Pretty Prospect" for its investment potential from the Columbia Mills. ¹⁴
Family records indicate that Roger Johnson's second son, George, was a mill operator by 1812 and civil trial records place George Johnson in Washington County, the location of the Columbia Mills, before 1815. ¹⁵
Roger Johnson purchased this business enterprise solely, without the help of his brothers. Since he remained in Urbana, it therefore seems likely that Roger Johnson purchased "Pretty Prospect" for his son George to operate the Columbia Mills. Since the original flourmill was destroyed by 1812, George Johnson employed a millwright to build him "the best mill possible". ¹⁶
The millwright, Daniel Kemp, employed the latest Oliver Evans innovations, designed to provide for efficient production through labor saving mechanisms and improved quality of product. ¹⁷
The Manufacturer's Census of 1820 listed George Johnson as operating with 5 milling stones and producing 60,000 tons of wheat bushels, 20,000 tons of corn and 400,000 tons of plaster a year. ¹⁸
Despite these large numbers, however, George Johnson had apparent business problems with incessantly incurred debt at the mill, resulting in many court cases from collectors. ¹⁹
Although his father attempted to help the son in 1818 by placing a lien on the mill portion of the property (retaining 13 3/4 acres of land on which a residence had been built), these attempts ultimately failed and the mill property was foreclosed on. ²⁰
As a final effort, George Johnson appealed to a distant cousin's husband, John Quincy Adams, in 1823 to purchase the property and to allow Johnson to continue operating the mills as manager. ²¹
John Quincy Adams purchased the Columbia Mills property, consisting of a 28 1/4-acre parcel of "Pretty Prospect" and 3 additional acres along Rock Creek, formerly part of Anthony Holmead's "Pleasant Plains" lot. ²²
Within months of purchasing the mill property, John Quincy Adams became President of the United States (1824). He was clearly unfamiliar with the milling business, but hoped that it would secure him some income and security in his retirement years. ²³
Columbia Mills became known as Adams' Mills, remaining in the possession of the Adams' family until 1871-72.
Given his level of political involvement at the time and plans to return to his native town of Quincy, MA, it seems unlikely that he ever planned to run the mills himself. George Johnson managed the mills for Adams initially, but his continued mismanagement of funds and inability to secure a profit led to a parting on unspecified terms by 1826. ²⁴
John Quincy Adams now placed the management of the mills in the unsteady hands of his son, John, already beset by illness and alcoholism. The frequent correspondence between father and son leaves a record indicating not only John Quincy Adams' active interest in and concern about the business, but also the precarious nature of milling. Markets in the United States and Europe were in constant fluctuation, making it hard to predict market trends. With the help of John Quincy Adams' personal secretary, William Cranch Greenleaf, the Adamses looked to markets in Boston, Baltimore, New York and Liverpool to sell their product. ²⁵
They could not anticipate whether prices in those markets would repay their costs of production and transportation. Flour was stored in a Georgetown warehouse for which costs were incurred until favorable market conditions were found, but it could not be kept long or in great quantity. Other problems facing the Adamses included continual mill and dam repairs as well as the seasonal fluctuation of Rock Creek, freezing in winter, flooding in spring and drying up in summer. ²⁶
Precarious conditions ultimately canceled out the advances of industrialization in this operation.
Despite constant worries, John Quincy Adams was able to secure a meager return during his lifetime. By 1835, the property was rented to tenants with Nathaniel Frye, Adams' attorney and family relation, overseeing the financial management. ²⁷
Adams' descendants retained ownership of the mill property until 1872 but the operation of the mills appears to have ceased by 1867 when they disappeared from tax books. While a few acres of land were sold to the Union Benevolent Association for the creation of an African-American cemetery, the majority of land was sold to Peter McNamara in 1872. ²⁸
The property exchanged hands twice more before becoming part of the Zoo in 1889, first to James Edwards in 1882, then to Pacificus Ord in 1884. ²⁹
No visible trace remains of the mills today.
At Roger Johnson's death in 1831, the property that had been separated from the mills appeared in his will. The will stated that "the house and lot of land adjoining the Columbia Mills in the District of Columbia" was to be among a small list of properties to be sold to cover debts, while the remaining assets were divided among his heirs. ³⁰
This is the earliest known reference to a house at "Pretty Prospect". It is unclear when the residence was built. There is a possibility that Stoddert or Mackall may have built the structure since it is in keeping with the style of a rusticated country villa popular in Maryland and Virginia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is also a possibility that Jonathan Shoemaker built the structure, but its isolated location in relation to the mills, the southern style of its design and the necessary construction costs of such a large structure make it unlikely. The house is located on the highest point of land, removed from the mills not only by the steep slope but also the curve of Rock Creek. The symmetrical design of the house consists of a five-part plan, reminiscent of a simplified neo-Palladian design with matching wings connected to the central block by hypens. Details such as the denticulated cornice are rough in character but nevertheless reflect the style of a builder with some pretension to English high-style architecture. For these reasons, it is most plausible that that house was constructed during 1809-18, when George Johnson resided at the property. Although George Johnson was not wealthy himself, his father, Roger, was an affluent country gentleman and member of a prominent Maryland family. Roger Johnson most likely had the house built at "Pretty Prospect" for his son's growing family. Accounts indicate that George Johnson invested $50,000 for improvements at the mills, some of which may also have been used to build a residence. ³¹
The fact that Roger Johnson split the property in 1818, offering only the mill land to the bank as collateral when his son suffered financial hardship, is another indication that the family held a special interest in the residence. He retained ownership of the residential portion of "Pretty Prospect" even though he did not live there himself.
After Roger Johnson's death, "Pretty Prospect" was sold to Dr. Ashton Alexander, a prominent physician from Baltimore, MD, in 1835. ³²
Ashton Alexander, for whose ancestors Alexandria, VA was named, commenced his medical studies in Frederick, MD. ³³
He may have been acquainted with the Johnson family in Frederick, as Roger Johnson and Ashton Alexander both had Quaker wives who were distant cousins. Alexander moved to Baltimore, MD in 1796, where he practiced medicine for more than forty years. ³⁴ Since Dr. Alexander never resided in Washington, DC, it is unclear why he purchased "Pretty Prospect". By 1841, when he placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering the property for lease or sale, he was using the house as a rental property. ³⁵
Another physician, Dr. Henry Holt, originally of Oswego County, NY, purchased the property in December 1844. ³⁷
Despite his medical title, Holt farmed the property. He was the first of the owners to have lived in the house. Alterations were made to the house, adding a new entrance on the north side and verandahs on the south side. ³⁸
These changes altered the overall appearance of the structure from its former austere classicism to a more romantic, picturesque impression. Historic maps show additional buildings, no longer standing, to house the livestock and serve the farm operation. Holt borrowed money, using the farm as collateral for most of the time he remained on the land, indicating that the farm operation was not self-sustaining. ³⁹ Dr. Holt and his family sold the property to the Commissioners for the National Zoological Park in 1889 for $40,000. ⁴⁰
The Zoo found itself the owner of a dilapidated structure that was badly in need of repairs. $2,000 were paid in 1890 for structural repairs to the roof, walls and flooring, followed by an additional $500 in 1896 for plumbing and gas fittings. ⁴¹
Later work included underpinning the walls, re-coating exterior walls, adding a skylight and other improvements to the second-story central room, enlarging the North entrance vestibule and altering the first floor windows, floor and wall surfaces. ⁴²
To meet the Zoo's needs for an administrative building and to stabilize the structure, there were so many changes made to the structure between 1890-1903, that much of the interior, historic fabric was lost. Despite these changes, however, problems have continued up to the present day. Records in the 1950s reported termite infestation and in 1962 Theodore Reed, the Zoo Director, wondered if the property shouldn't be condemned. ⁴³
Despite its structural problems, however, the building has retained its distinctive character of a nineteenth century country villa, which appeals to visitors. In 1973 Holt House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural merit. Zoo personnel occupied the building until 1988 after which it was boarded up, pending a future use.
Charles Frances Adams, John Quincy Adams' son and executor, sold 6 3/4 acres of the mill property to the Union Benevolent Association in 1870 for the creation of an African-American cemetery. ⁴⁴
The lot consisted of a rectangular shape extending from the Quaker cemetery down the sloped terrain to Rock Creek, along the southern boundary of the Adams Mill property. The Union Benevolent Association was authorized by an Act of Congress in 1865 "for the purpose of providing a burial place for the incorporators and members of their families." ⁴⁵ Within only a few short years the cemetery became one of the most active in Washington, DC and remained in use until 1890 when the density of gravesites and marshy conditions near the creek precluded further use. ⁴⁶
When the Commissioners for the Zoological Park were deciding on land to purchase for the Zoo, they considered purchasing the cemetery land as a screening device from surrounding neighborhoods. ⁴⁷
Instead, they only purchased 1.7 acres of cemetery land to regularize their border with the condition that remains be reinterred to another location. ⁴⁸
By July 1890 the Union Benevolent Association notified the Zoo that the removal of bodies had been accomplished and they received payment of $3,000.
The remaining 4 1/2 acres of cemetery had a more precarious future. The Union Benevolent Association was dissolved by 1928, when the property was in a state of neglect. Attempts to sell the lot proved unsuccessful, in part due to the uncertainty over remaining burials. When the developer Shapiro, Inc. expressed an interest in the property in 1941, five hundred remains were reinterred to Woodlawn Cemetery, allowing Shapiro, Inc. to purchase the lot in August 1941. ⁴⁹
Shapiro, Inc. also was interested in purchasing the abandoned Quaker cemetery. The lot had remained inactive since the late nineteenth century. When Shapiro, Inc. made inquiries during the late 1940s and determined that taxes were owed on the lot, the developers attempted to gain ownership by paying off the taxes. ⁵⁰
The Shapiros did ultimately gain ownership between 1958 - 60 but the problem of possible remains prevented them from building their proposed apartment building on the site. ⁵¹
In 1981, the District of Columbia government purchased both the former African-American and Quaker cemeteries from Shapiro, Inc. This land has become the Walter Pierce Community Park. ⁵²
As the many layers of history surrounding Holt House and its lands reveal much can be learned of the general development and history of Washington, DC from this one site. One of the early owners was a land speculator who helped define the geography of the city, while owning the property on which Holt House was later built. The same owner built the Columbia Mills, which were later altered to keep pace with technology as demonstrated by Oliver Evans mechanisms. The mill history not only reflects commercial and industrial revolution but also connects with the nation's political history in a period of abolition through John Quincy Adams and his son, Charles Francis Adams. The Holt House residence reveals connections to a Maryland family invested in the English manor life and newer industries at the same time. A well-renown Baltimore physician owner introduces the professionalism of medicine with which he was active, while also investing in real estate ventures. Finally, meager agricultural production is indicated at the site during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The site also reveals information on the post Civil War African-American population of the city through the adjoining cemetery site. The documentary evidence revealed this rich tapestry of local history, but has left some crucial questions. To complete the research process, an archeological study of the site is now necessary, a project for which the National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Institution are currently seeking funding.